04 June 2018
131 years ago, the world's first known piano recording was played in London for an historical, once-in-a-lifetime event.
It is the year 1888; your name is Arthur Sullivan and you are Britain's foremost composer. Across town, American Civil War recipient George Gouraud has just hosted a press conference introducing the phonograph - a device for mechanical recording and reproduction of sound - which is an invention created by a certain Thomas Edison; a man who will later be known as the greatest inventor of all time. During the press conference, Gouraud uses the phonograph to play a piano and cornet recording of your piece, 'The Lost Chord', to an entire room full of waiting press. The recording goes down in history as the first known recording of music ever made.
It really was an historical moment.
Arthur Sullivan, the composer behind the piece, famously composed 'The Lost Chord' 11 years prior to this recording. With his brother Fred on the verge of death, Sullivan wrote the music and accompanied it with a poem written by Adelaide Anne Proctor, on 13th January 1877. Five days later, his brother passed away. Over the next 2 decades, the manuscript became the biggest commercial success of any British or American song at the time.
If that wasn't enough success for Sullivan, then perhaps the fact that his piece, his composition, is the earliest recording of music known to exist. Following its appearance at Gouraud's press conference, a series of parties followed in order to introduce society to the phonograph and to the recording of Sullivan's piece. Indeed, Sullivan himself was invited to one on 5th October 1888. After seeing Edison's phonograph for the first time, and hearing his music out loud, he recorded a speech to be sent to Edison saying, in part:
"I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening's experiments: astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever."
Despite being the first known recording of music, it certainly isn't history's highest quality piece! The phonograph records sound by etching and impressing the vibration waveforms of the recording. To play it back, the surface is rotated whilst a playback stylus traces the imprinted groove, therefore being vibrated by it, and very faintly reproducing the recorded sound. In this recording, you can hear the phonograph rotating loud and clear. Listen carefully below and you will hear the faint, thin sound of Sullivan's composition.
Sullivan was 100% right to have his reservations about the terrifyingly world-changing invention. Some awful music has been recorded since, that's for sure. But, we've also been mercifully gifted with millions of pieces of beautiful recordings that would not exist if it wasn't for the recording of 'The Lost Chord'.
So, thank you Thomas Edison for your unforgettable invention. And thank you, Arthur Sullivan, for making sure that the oldest ever piano recording was a stunning one.
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